British spirits boosted as Parry bronze ends the long drought

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Stephen Parry ended Britain's eight-year wait for an Olympic swimming medal in stirring fashion here last night by taking bronze in the 200 metres butterfly final.

Stephen Parry ended Britain's eight-year wait for an Olympic swimming medal in stirring fashion here last night by taking bronze in the 200 metres butterfly final. In a race which Michael Phelps, of the United States, won by clocking the second-fastest time in history, 1min 54.04sec, to set a Games record, Parry came third in 1min 55.52sec behind Takashi Yamamoto, of Japan.

"I know it sounds a cliché but it's a dream come true," said Parry, a 27-year-old Liverpudlian who only just scraped into Monday's semi-finals as the 16th qualifier but then beat Phelps and everyone else in a British record time to reach last night's final. "It's what the Olympic Games is all about," he added. "We needed that medal in the British camp."

Indeed they did, and not just the under-pressure swimming camp, who otherwise had another disappointing evening. Parry's bronze was only Britain's second of the Games so far, across all sports. The silver won by the 10m synchronised platform divers on Saturday was starting to get lonely.

"There are so many more quality British swimmers to come this week and hopefully I've got the ball rolling," Parry said. "It's such an amazing feeling."

Judging by the reaction of his team-mates, who provided vociferous support from the stand behind the starting blocks, it was a feeling that spread even before he touched home. There were enough beams to light a small town for days and enough tears to fill a pool. Under those conditions, the swimming medal drought dating back to Atlanta had no chance.

It was at the 1996 Games, eight years and 22 days ago to be precise, that any Briton last stood on an Olympic podium at the pool. Back then, Graeme Smith took bronze in the 1500m freestyle.

The extent and importance of Parry's feat cannot be overstated, not only for the depth of courage he showed in pushing Phelps so hard for three lengths, two of them inside Phelps' world record time. It also provided the first tangible reward at the ultimate level for the "tough love" regime of Bill Sweetenham, British swimming's Australian performance director.

With a string of hopes already dashed before last night, not least Melanie Marshall failing to make the 200m freestyle final, questions were already being asked about why Sweetenham's charges were not producing the goods here. Parry's medal may only have been bronze, not gold, but by itself it eradicated the possibility of another "Games of shame" to match Sydney four years ago, when Britain's swimmers won nothing except criticism for their partying.

Parry's swim last night should at least earn him the right to an extra bottle of isotonic water with his dinner. He set off at a roaring pace - the kind that destroyed Marshall's hopes in the 200m - and kept the advantage of Phelps, next to him in lane five, down to inches.

Even as Phelps opened up a slight lead, Parry stayed on his tail through the 100m and 150m turns and looked like he might even hold on for silver. Yamatoto's stamina allowed him to take that spot in the final 20m, but there was no shame in third.

Parry finished sixth in the Olympic final four years ago and fourth in last year's World Championships but as his narrow squeeze into the semis showed, it always seemed possible that he would not make the final here.

He dedicated his win to his father, Dave, who contracted shingles last week and could not travel to Greece. "He couldn't come out so I've got a medal for him. In life there is one key ingredient and that's your parents. They have been brilliant in their support for me. My dad had better be hitting the beers now, he should be celebrating."

Talking through the final 50m, which he feared would see him pipped off the podium altogether, he added: "I thought I'd lost it at the end a little bit. I saw Phelps going away with it, having got really excited down the third length, and I didn't expect to be there or thereabouts in the race.

"Ever since I watched [Andy] Jameson win a medal in Seoul in 1988, I wanted to put on the GB vest and represent my country at an Olympic Games. I saw the quality of the field I was in, so to come out with a medal is great."

Curiously, for someone who has had to work as hard as anyone under taskmaster Sweetenham, Parry added: "I don't think I deserved it but I'm really proud of it."

Quite what that means is anyone's guess. Maybe when Sweetenham demanded 50 miles a week in the pool and then 20 extra for good measure, he only did an extra 19. More likely is that he feels that others, including Marshall, had made greater progress over the past two years on the world stage, and that they should have had some reward for their efforts.

"We are on a roll now, and hopefully with the sort of people we have on the team we can follow it up with a medal or two. I was one of the people in Sydney who just missed out on a medal, and this team is really good and we deserve better and that was the motivation for me. I just hope we can convert more medals. There are people on the team much more talented than me and there is no reason why we can't."

Logically, that is true. The British team have been winning at unprecedented levels at European, Commonwealth and World level over the past few years. But something has evidently been amiss here. Marshall missed out on the 200m final, won last night by Romania's Camelia Potec. Georgina Lee failed last night to progress to the 200m butterfly.

Chris Cook and Ian Edmond also failed to make today's 200m breaststroke final. Cook was too slow in his semi-final and Edmond was disqualified for an illegal turn when he was in second place.

Britain's 4x200m freestyle relay team came tantalisingly close to a second bronze of the night, but the quartet of Simon Burnett, Gavin Meadows, David O'Brien and Ross Davenport, despite setting a British record of 7min 12.60sec, finished fourth behind a Phelps-inspired United States, Australia and Italy.

Victory for the US gave Phelps his third gold of the Games. Ian Thorpe remains on course for a third after progressing last night to tonight's 100m freestyle final. The pair's five golds between them here are already the same number that Britain have won in the pool in every post-war Games combined. That is precisely why bronze felt so sweet to Parry and Co last night.